For everyone who bashes the AFC, take this for consolation - its playoffs figure to be a lot less interesting than in the NFC, where Emmitt Smith will rest his hamstring for three weeks, then show up to ensure Dallas gets to San Francisco for the title game.
Yes, Barry Sanders will be fun to watch and Brett Favre (if he makes it) is turning into a premier quarterback. But it's very unlikely anyone will upset the 49ers or the Cowboys, even with the ragged way Dallas is playing.But the AFC?
You can make an argument for or against just about everyone:
1, Pittsburgh (12-3). The defense may be the best in the league. But (Jimmy Johnson has a point), it's gimmicky. Cleveland blocked it well and might have won at Three Rivers last week if it had a quarterback other than Vinny Testeverde. And if Pittsburgh falls behind by 10 points or more, is Neil O'Donnell a comeback quarterback?
2, Cleveland (10-5). Nice defense. See Vinny T above.
3, New England (9-6). The best story, although if the Pats lose in Chicago, they could miss the playoffs altogether. If Bill Parcells wins the Super Bowl, he may actually be the greatest coach who ever lived - he already thinks he is and so do Parcells' clique of New York acolytes.
4, Raiders (9-6). A lot of people picked them early and are jumping back on the bandwagon. The talent is there, but there's something missing upstairs.
5, Miami (9-6). Dan Marino deserves to go back. So does Don Shula, and they'd be at home for the Super Bowl. They need Marino to get hot and the guys who usually get hurt to be healthy.
6, San Diego (10-5). Health again. If Leslie O'Neal, Junior Seau and their other defensive impact guys play well, they've got a shot. Their chances could be enhanced if they beat Pittsburgh Saturday and get a week off to heal.
7, Kansas City (8-7). If they get in, who knows what wonder Joe Montana may work.
Any of these seven teams could get hot at the right time (the Chargers started 6-0), and they could make it to the Super Bowl.
Once they get there, they're on their own.
BOOM OR BUST, MOSTLY BOOM
Barry Sanders is very close to the 2,000-yard mark. Count all the yards he's gained, and he's even closer.
The Lions' running back needs 169 yards Sunday night in Miami to join Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson as the only players to rush for 2,000 yards in one season. But he's also lost 146 yards on 51 carries, by far the most in the league.
Another Barry bit: Of the nine runs over 60 yards this season, Sanders has six - for 85, 84, 69, 64, 63, and 62. Only the 64 went for a TD.
The other 60-somethings are Herschel Walker of Philadelphia, a 91-yard run with for TD; Johnny Johnson of the Jets, 90 yards (non-TD); and Buffalo's Kenneth Davis, 60 yards.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
When the New York Giants made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years back in 1981, the scenario was strikingly similar to the one they face this weekend.
In 1981, the Giants, 8-7, played the Dallas Cowboys, who had already clinched the NFC East, and beat them 13-10 in overtime. Then they had to wait and see if the Jets could beat Green Bay, which also was 8-7 but had the tiebreaker. the Jets cooperated, beating the Packers 28-3.
This week, the 8-7 Giants play the Cowboys, who already have clinched the NFC East. But the Packers, at 8-7, hold the tiebreaker, so New York has to beat Dallas and hope Green Bay loses at Tampa.
The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:
1, San Francisco (13-2)
2, Dallas (12-3)
3, Pittsburgh (12-3)
4, Cleveland (10-5)
5, New England (9-6)
6, Detroit (9-6)
23, New York Jets (6-9)
24, Seattle (6-9)
25, Los Angeles Rams (4-11)
26, Cincinnati (2-13)
27, Washington (2-13)
28, Houston (1-14)